Harry Truman took on wasteful contractors during World War II and improved Congress’ public image.
Paris had fallen and Nazi bombs were raining on London. The United States was hurtling toward World War II as 1940 drew to a close. Despite isolationist efforts to derail President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plans for mobilization, Congress had approved $10.5 billion for military bases, airplanes, ships, tanks and munitions—a sum larger than the entire federal budget in previous years. Most of the president’s party supported the rapid buildup, but one relatively obscure and independent-minded legislator was wary of giving carte blanche to the Roosevelt administration and the defense contractors who were scrambling to get a piece of the action.
“I have never yet found a contractor who, if not watched, would not leave the government holding the bag,” said Harry S. Truman, 56, the junior senator from Missouri and a member of the Military Affairs Committee and the Military Subcommittee on Appropriations. Truman, a failed haberdasher closely allied with Missouri’s Democratic political boss Tom Pendergast, had done little to distinguish himself during his first six years in office. He was starting his second term after a tough reelection campaign in which he had worked to convince voters of his own incorruptibility following Pendergast’s conviction for income tax evasion a few months earlier. So as the money for mobilization began to flow and complaints about mismanagement, corruption and favoritism in the defense industry flooded his office, Truman seized the opportunity to prove himself. He slid into his battered Dodge and launched a one-man, 10,000-mile cross-country odyssey to investigate the work that was being done and the nation’s readiness for war.
He was shocked by what he found. At Fort Leonard Wood, a new training base under construction in his home state, Truman said he saw lumber and other building materials exposed to rain and snow, “getting ruined. And there were men, hundreds of men, just standing around collecting their pay, doing nothing.” He discovered similar problems in Florida, Michigan and other states. “It was the same everywhere. Millions of dollars were being wasted,” he said. When he returned to Washington, Truman persuaded Senate leaders to put him in charge of a new committee with authority to investigate the burgeoning war effort. Created in March 1941, the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program soon came to be known as the Truman Committee.
In today’s charged atmosphere of ideological bickering and congressional dysfunction, it is reassuring to recall a time when things worked on Capitol Hill. The Truman Committee remains an example of Congress at its best. The panel—largely fair-minded and bipartisan—engaged not in acrimony but in promoting the national interest. Most important, it was effective. The committee’s investigative efforts—which continued through 1948 and by Truman’s estimate saved the government $15 billion—systematically exposed corruption in the defense industry, shed light on shortages of rubber, aluminum and other strategic war materiel. It also called manufacturers to account for shoddy work, prodded labor leaders to discourage strikes and streamlined federal contract practices. It saved lives and probably shortened the war.
“There is no substitute for facts,” Truman repeatedly told his committee, which turned up thousands of pages of evidence and reestablished congressional authority as a counterweight to the power of FDR’s White House. The panel staged 732 hearings on a wide range of subjects—steelmaking, shipping losses, housing construction, labor shortages, camp construction and other issues—and produced 51 committee reports, each one unanimously approved by Democrats and Republicans on the panel. “Senator Truman was known as a pragmatist, and, dare I use the word, a compromiser,” says Katherine A. Scott, assistant historian of the Senate. “He was more interested in solving problems than in grandstanding.” Truman’s skillful handling of the panel, which managed to be critical of the Roosevelt administration without being malicious, influenced FDR’s decision to tap him as a running mate in 1944—a fateful choice that landed the Missourian in the Oval Office a few months later.
From the outset, Truman’s sense of history helped establish a positive tone for his investigations. He had studied the work of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, a Civil War-era congressional panel. That taught him what not to do. “I’d read the hearings that those birds had, every damn one of them,” Truman recalled years later, spreading his arms wide to indicate a five-foot-long shelf space. The panel, headed by Sen. Benjamin Wade and dominated by Radical Republicans, constantly second-guessed President Lincoln, interfered with military appointments, grilled generals about failed campaigns and created such a muddle that Robert E. Lee famously observed that the committee was worth two divisions to him.
Not surprisingly, Roosevelt was initially wary of Truman’s plans for an investigation. So were the Senate’s Democratic leaders, who gave the committee a paltry budget of $15,000 to keep watch on expenditures that in 1941 alone would exceed $13 billion. Truman was undeterred. “Three weeks after the committee was established, Senator Truman made an address on CBS Radio inviting the public to report instances of waste and abuse in their communities, so right from the start, you see people writing to Washington about things they’ve seen,” says Scott. “These letters became the basis for some of the panel’s most important investigations. The public was appalled by the stories of poorly built airplanes and carriers. When the committee showed that the government was trying to correct these problems, that gained tremendous support for the committee, which it enjoyed for many years.”
In the fall of 1941, the committee’s budget was increased from $15,000 to $50,000. The committee’s chief counsel, Hugh Fulton, assembled a hard-working staff of lawyers and accountants who followed up on tips, probed for flaws in the defense program and organized hearings. Fulton, a former federal prosecutor, was a fat man with rosy cheeks and the high, squeaky voice of a cartoon character. But his cuddly appearance belied the steely investigator within. Like his boss, Fulton was an early riser and a demon for hard work. While the rest of the Senate slept, he and Truman usually met at 7 a.m. in the old Senate Office Building (now the Russell Senate Office Building) to chart each day’s work.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Robert Patterson, undersecretary of war, called for the committee to be disbanded on the grounds that it might impede victory by meddling in strategy and tactics. Truman countered by reading a statement into the Congressional Record, saying he had no intention of interfering and insisting that the committee “was needed more than ever to ensure an efficient war effort.” He pressed his case in a private meeting with Roosevelt and emerged to announce that the president supported the committee.
Meanwhile, Truman did not hesitate to skewer the high and mighty when he thought they hampered the war effort. His committee criticized Standard Oil Company for slowing the development of synthetic rubber in the United States through its exclusive patent agreements with the German industrial giant I.G. Farben. Alcoa was chastised for an aluminum shortage aggravated by the company’s virtual monopoly on production of the metal. The committee discovered Curtiss-Wright made faulty engines for the B-29 Superfortress, and it forced the Glenn Martin Company to redesign defective wings on B-26 bombers. Truman’s panel also detailed how inspectors at a rolling mill for Carnegie-Illinois Steel, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, skimped on quality control, falsified reports and tried to thwart the committee’s investigators.
“I don’t know anything about the steel business,” Truman told a company attorney in the March 1943 hearings, “and I don’t expect to know about it, but I can tell you when the books have been tampered with and when there is a bunch of crookedness going on. That is plain enough for me to see.”
Truman also crossed swords with John L. Lewis, the nation’s most prominent labor leader, during hearings in 1943. When Lewis accused a member of the committee of demagoguery, Truman knocked the burly union chief back in line.
“Now, Mr. Lewis, we don’t stand for any sassy remarks to members of this committee,” he snapped, “and your rights will be protected here just the same as those of everybody else. I don’t like that remark to a member of this committee.”
“Senator, you did not object when the senator called me a demagogue,” Lewis shot back.
“Yes,” said Truman, “it works both ways. I don’t think the senator should have called you a demagogue.”
When the panel was not grilling titans of industry and labor, it summoned the military brass. Truman handled them politely but skeptically. “You always have to remember that when you’re dealing with generals and admirals, most of them, they’re wrong a good deal of the time,” said Truman, who had served as an artillery captain in World War I. “No military man knows anything about money. All they know how to do is spend it, and they don’t give a damn whether they’re getting their money’s worth.”
Throughout the hearings, Truman made it clear he would play no favorites. “A lot of these powerful people were not used to explaining themselves in public,” says Katherine Scott. “But nobody was going to get off the hook.”
Although Truman claimed a lack of interest in publicity, he made frequent radio appearances and speeches to tout the committee’s work, which was also heralded by hundreds of press releases from the panel’s staff. The releases were headed “Truman Committee” instead of “Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program.” Favorable news coverage usually followed.
As the committee’s reputation grew, so did its budget. Over the life of the committee, the Senate put up almost a million dollars for the panel’s travel, hearings, reports and staff. New clerks were hired to keep pace with an avalanche of mail from the public. Some writers squealed on neighbors or business competitors who had not paid taxes or were making excess profits. A California woman who had worked for the War Department revealed that a catastrophic failure of outboard motors had hindered the Marines’ amphibious assault on Makin Island in 1942. Other correspondents shared their crackpot ideas for the war effort. One man offered his proprietary invention for scraping traces of rubber off the highways to solve the nation’s rubber shortage; another described a revolutionary new machine gun, which he brought, concealed under his coat, to the committee’s offices.
Many ordinary citizens wrote to thank the committee. “The great American public, who have no voice in National affairs, are beginning to realize that they have a friend at court, and an alert watchdog, in your honorable and impartial committee,” wrote C. Bartel of Alexandria, Va. From Lansing, Iowa, came this fan letter: “I want to pat you on the back, for having the nerve to stand up against the ‘Big Shots,’ ” wrote Julius Boeckh, noting that his surname was “pronounced the same as Beck of German descent, but 150 percent for the good old USA. Keep after them and don’t let them bulldoze you. You have the people back of you, and they will stand by you.”
Despite the public enthusiasm for the committee’s work, Truman was unable to accomplish all of his populist objectives. One was to end FDR’s practice of appointing influential business leaders to positions in wartime production agencies as “dollar-a-year men,” who earned the nickname by working without compensation or at a token salary. By 1942 there were almost a thousand such appointees. The arrangement looked patriotic, but most of the executives continued to be paid hefty corporate salaries, which Truman and other critics considered a gross conflict of interest.
“In a very real sense the dollar-a-year men can be termed lobbyists,” a committee report from 1942 noted. “This does not mean that they or their companies are engaged in any illegal conduct but it does mean that, human nature being what it is, there is very real opportunity for the favoritism and other abuses which have led the Congress to consider corrective legislation.” Even though the practice continued throughout the war, Katherine Scott suggests that the committee’s presence helped limit abuses. “Just knowing the committee was watching kept people honest,” she says.
Truman’s populist suspicion of big business led him to pursue another objective that went unrealized. He railed against the preferential treatment industrial giants received over small businesses when defense contracts were let. “The little fellow is being rooked,” he fumed. “The little manufacturer, the little contractor, and the little machine shop have been left entirely out in the cold.”
This was a popular sentiment in Missouri, but it had little effect in Washington. Given the growing demand for supplies and new technology for the American military, Truman may have been naive to think that the War Production Board would rely on any but large, seasoned manufacturers. “The fact is that the times really favored big producers, who were able to meet the demands,” Scott says. “Senator Truman was never successful in reducing the influence of big industries or shifting production to smaller ones.”
Nonetheless, Truman was proud of the committee’s record and pleased to have so skillfully achieved congressional oversight without sacrificing party loyalty. “We were never an embarrassment to Roosevelt, not at any time,” he later said. In a letter to his wife, Bess, whom he affectionately called the Boss, Truman wrote: “I am more surprised every day at the respect with which the special committee is regarded by people in high places.”
The chairman got most of the credit. Arthur Krock of the New York Times, a man not easily impressed by any politician, praised Truman’s “objectivity at the total expense of partisanship.” The dean of congressional correspondents, Allen Drury of United Press International, was effusive: “It is quite easy to find oneself thanking whatever powers there be that the country has Harry Truman in the Senate. He is an excellent man, a fine Senator and sound American. The debt the public owes him is great indeed.” BusinessWeek noted a wholesome effect of the panel’s work: A threat of being exposed by the Truman Committee was often “sufficient to force a cure of abuses.” In May 1944, a Look magazine survey of 52 Washington reporters named Truman as one of the capital’s 10 most valuable officials. He was the only member of Congress on the list.
When FDR ran for a fourth term in 1944, Vice President Henry Wallace had fallen out of favor with Democratic Party leaders and Roosevelt quietly agreed to dump him in favor of Truman. Truman resigned from the Senate, won the election with FDR and moved to the Oval Office upon Roosevelt’s death in 1945.
By then the war was nearly over. Although Truman had left Capitol Hill, his committee continued its work, ferreting out waste and corruption and easing the nation’s transition to a peacetime economy. In 1948, the Senate gave the panel a new name—the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations—along with authority to continue probing for inefficiency, mismanagement and corruption in government. Five years later, the committee played a key role in one of the most shameful chapters of American history when its new chairman, Joseph McCarthy, a Republican senator from Wisconsin, began dragging suspected communists and subversives before the television cameras. McCarthy lashed out at administration officials he thought were soft on communism, including Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall and President Truman. The era of objective, civil, bipartisan fact-finding was over.
Robert M. Poole is the author of On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery.